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The Fourth Year

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Roy waits the first year because they’re both preoccupied, and Ed is still too young. There will be time—there will be all the time in the world, now; the quest that claimed every fragment of the boy’s being is over, and he is finally becoming everything he’s always been capable of. Ed takes some leave, takes his warm right arm and his softly-breathing brother home to Resembool, takes an opportunity to relax for the first time in the three endless years that Roy has known him. And then he returns, twirling his silver watch, tilting an ivory grin, and Roy does not take the chance.

 


 

Roy waits the second year because Hakuro is more charismatic than he calculated for, and forging a path towards democracy is slow and fraught and frustrating. There will be time—Ed is back on the team now that Alphonse is studying some incomprehensibly complicated branch of alchemical science at the university, and things are different. Ed’s markedly older now—not just in the line of his jaw and the depth of his eyes; not just in the two additional inches he scrounged up from his genome; not just in the subtle gray-brown coat and the calm angle of his broadened shoulders. Ed is considered; Ed is courteous; Ed is mature. Ed has nothing left to prove, and he is a part of the team this time—he is a cooperating component of a larger unit. He begins, slowly at first and then with the momentum of an emotional avalanche, to remind Roy of Hughes. He is whip-smart and driven and resourceful, and he has learned to play his cards close to the chest, keeping all the aces tucked up in his sleeves. Central Command gets accustomed to seeing General Mustang with Riza at his right shoulder and Ed at his left.

 


 

Roy waits the third year because he’s scared. He waits the third year because he has been in love with Ed for so long now that it’s become a reflex, a baseline, a fact. It is the Ouroboros inked into his skin; he can’t distinguish any longer where it started, and he can’t imagine a universe where it will end. It consumes itself; it consumes him; it turns and turns and sinks its teeth into his flesh as well as its own. The stakes of his life tend always to be dizzyingly high, and this time he can’t quite muster the guts to test them—Ed would outgrow him; Ed would bore of him; they’d hate each other; they’d kill each other; they’d slowly drift apart. He can’t bear to gamble this quiet mutual comprehension for the remote possibility of perfection. They’re a madman’s odds; it’s a fool’s hope; he isn’t brave enough to lay himself at Ed’s feet and trust that he won’t be stepped on. Their elbows brush, and their eyes meet, and Roy’s heart throbs in his chest to a beat he must believe in—therewillbetime.

 


 

The fourth year, when Roy looks across the crowded Friday night bar to share the unvoiced snicker at Havoc’s melodrama, Ed isn’t looking back. The fourth year, their fingertips don’t touch across reports; Ed walks home rather than hitching a ride; Ed’s uniform jacket stops getting left in Roy’s office at least twice a week and instead begins to be buttoned up tight. The fourth year, after Ed has missed three Friday nights in a row, Riza gives Roy an unreadable look and tells him about Walter.

Walter. Any self-respecting man named Walter would have changed his name and ceased to be Walter at all. Walter is a weak name, a tiny name, a name like falter, a name that starts out timid and trails off into insignificance. Walter fills Roy with equal parts confusion and despair as he tries to justify digging into the records. Walter is a professor of useless esoterica at the university; Walter is a pale wisp of a human being; Walter blends in with the wall. Walter is like water, and if he drowns and dilutes Ed’s ferocious brightness, Roy will destroy him. Walter is twenty-seven; in front of the bathroom mirror, Roy takes up a pair of tweezers and pulls the white hairs at his temples out at the roots.

Roy would tear his heart out with pliers next to make Walter disappear. He would go blind again to erase Walter once and for all. He’d cut out his own tongue after the fact if he could only make Ed understand how many ways this is wrong

None of the other members of his team says anything, but they’ve sensed the change. The office leaves a careful space around Ed, a careful space around Roy, and he wants to hurl staplers at them; he’d prefer volumes of mockery to their pity.

The only thing worse is the whisper behind it—the murmur of the exchange. The white face that hovers at the edge of every dream follows him with an eyeless gaze, grating a laugh. Well, Mustang, you tossed away a lot of hearts in your day. Didn’t you ever wonder what those games meant to the other people playing them? Didn’t you ever think that fate might be fair? Didn’t you ever ask yourself what kind of future you deserve?

 


 

The fourth year, Jean Havoc proposes to Rebecca Catalina, and Roy pretends to be delighted that they’re so much happier than he is.  Havoc almost cries announcing that they’re all his best men, and Roy grits his teeth into a grin.

The fourth year, Ed goes out on a Friday night again, because Walter is already there.  Walter stands up from the table he was saving for them and touches Ed’s arm and smiles like he’s seeing the sun for the first time.  Walter looks painfully harmless.  Walter looks like a ferret.  Walter looks like a white page of dark text detailing the human condition from a safe distance.  Walter looks like the lines around his eyes are all from vague amusement and mild concern.  Walter looks like the only thing he’d be good for in bed is bringing a glass of warm milk.

Ed hates milk.  Doesn’t he?

Except when engrossed in discussion with Falman, Walter doesn’t take his eyes off of Ed—and why should he?  He doesn’t have to.

Roy can already tell that he’s going to get embarrassingly drunk and pass it off as celebration of the engagement.

 


 

The fourth year, Riza schedules the fitting for her maid of honor dress during her lunch hour, and everyone else trails down to the cafeteria to offer commentary on the gooey eyes Havoc and Rebecca will be exchanging over the table—everyone but Ed.  Ed stays.  Ed sits in the outer office, jogging his right knee, absorbed in a report, with a pen cradled loosely in his left hand.

Roy sits down next to him.  Roy fiddles with the wrappings of his sandwich.  Roy clears his throat.

“If you’ve got something to ask,” Ed says, “just ask it.  Some people around here actually do work, y’know.”

“It’s not a question,” Roy says.  It is: Oh, God, why?  “I intended only to… register my surprise.”

“Consider it registered,” Ed says.  He hasn’t looked up from the page.  He’s started to squint a little lately—are his eyes going?  He’s still young for that, yes, but he’s always been so recklessly cavalier about his own health, and even Alphonse says he’s been reading too much since he was three.

“All right,” Roy says. He knows that he’s been maneuvered into a concession, but time is short. Time is gone.  “I do have one question.”  There’s no charitable way to say this, but Ed’s always preferred candor: “Doesn’t he… bore you?”

“No,” Ed says, voice flat, eyes hard.  “He doesn’t.  He knows all kinds of stuff, and he’s pretty funny, which you’d know if you’d done anything except glare at him all night.  I get that being a huge, condescending dick is sort of your default setting, but could you at least act like you care about me enough to respect my choices?”

It’s been so long since they fought over anything more personal than procrastination methods that Roy had forgotten just how deeply Ed can gouge him when the occasion calls for injury.

“Not all of us,” Ed bites out, gaze still lowered, brows drawn close, “care more about excitement than about—just—having somebody to come home to who gives a shit.”  His voice takes on a tone of delicacy, which Roy wishes he’d never taught him.  “And not all of us,” Ed says, “have the luxury of picking and choosing who they want that somebody to be.”

Roy’s mouth is a desert; his tongue is a dune.  How can you not see that you could have anyone in the entire world, Ed?

“Besides,” Ed says.  “Walter’s… normal.  I’ve never had a normal thing in my entire fucking life, you know that?  You ought to know that.  You’re a lot of the reason why.  That’s what I was fighting for the whole time, if you think about it—for a chance to be goddamn normal after all the shit I fucked up.”  He hunches his shoulders and leans lower over the report.  “If you’re gonna judge me, go the fuck ahead.  But don’t be pissed just because I finally started something in my life that you can’t control.”

Roy swallows several times—once each for the chagrin, the anger, the old guilt, the new guilt, the misery, the desperation, and the love.  It’s the last that almost chokes him.

“That’s not why I asked,” he says.

“He’s happy every time he sees me,” Ed says.  “He brings me chocolate and then tells me to eat my vegetables.  He makes the bed every morning when he gets up, and he always kisses like he’s grateful.”

Roy thinks he may be sick.

“Is that boring enough for you?” Ed asks, still without looking at him.  “Is it boring to be appreciated?  I guess for you it probably is.”

Roy laughs dryly, which is preferable to vomiting or bursting into extremely unbefitting tears.  “Is that really all you think of me?”

Ed sets down the pen and scrubs at his eyes.  “No.  I kind of—I went overboard there.  I’m sorry.  Just… leave well enough alone for once in your life, would you?  For once in both of our lives.”

Roy swallows again—and again, and again.  It’s not enough; he’s not enough; he could never be enough for you; you don’t understand, because you’ve never had anything else to gauge by, but enough is so much more than what he’ll give you—

“I didn’t mean to meddle,” Roy says.  His voice is hoarse, and his throat is sticky.  “I only want you to be happy, Ed.  If you are, I’m happy for you.”

“I am,” Ed says, staring at the report.  He picks up the pen again; he sets it down.  “I am copa-fucking-cetic.  Thank you.”  For a strange moment, he goes entirely still—still like he only ever is when he’s unconscious.  “Thanks.  Really.  Your concern is touching and stuff.  If that’s—everything, I need to get through this for your one-o’-clock.”

I could write a novel about your smile, Roy thinks. It would top the bestseller lists and fly from the shelves; it would be quoted for centuries as emblematic of undying adulation; and then you might begin to know what you mean to me.

“That’s everything,” Roy says, drawing himself to his feet.  “You do know that you only have to read thirty percent of what Second Lieutenant Falman puts on the page…?”

Ed sticks his tongue out and then goes back to squinting.

Roy wonders if they put heartbreak on death certificates.

 


 

The fourth year, a week before Jean Havoc marries Rebecca Catalina in the courthouse, with an entire box of monogrammed tissues set aside for his mother’s tears alone, Brigadier General Roy Mustang and his adjutant are summoned to Briggs.

“No damn way,” Ed says when Riza opens her mouth.  “You’d kill crocodiles to make sure I got to Al’s wedding, if it came to that.  It’s a two-way street, Major.  She’s your best friend.  I’ll babysit this time.”

“Excuse me,” Roy says, and no one pays him any heed.

“Are you sure?” Riza asks.

“Yeah,” Ed says.  “I can handle General Armstrong.  She’s actually pretty nice once you get to know her.”

There is a pause.

“That was a joke,” Ed says.

“Right,” Roy says slowly.  “I suppose we would be wise to make an appointment with Miss Rockbell, then.”

“Since when are we wise?” Ed asks.

Roy wishes he had an answer to that.

 


 

The fourth year, Riza and Alphonse see their respective elders off at the station.

“Did you pack extra socks?” they say in perfect unison.

“Yes,” Roy says.

“I just pack the number of socks somebody else would,” Ed says, “and then double up on the right foot.”

They stand there for a moment—a perfectly balanced quadrangle, a tuned and harmonized quartet, a circumscribed square in a flawless array.  Perhaps if they never move—

“Take care, Brother,” Alphonse says, shifting forward to wrap Ed into a very tight hug.  “And don’t overexert yourself, and clean the automail, and stay warm—did you pack those earmuffs I got you?”

“No,” Ed says.  “Earmuffs are for wimps. I’ve got manly ears.”

He doesn’t.  His ears are adorable.

“Love you, Al,” Ed says, pressing a curled fist gently to Alphonse’s chest.  “I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Send me a telegram when you get to the fort,” Alphonse says. “I love you, Brother.”

Roy looks at Riza.  Riza looks back.  Then she snaps her heels together and salutes.

“Safe trip, General,” she says.

“At ease, Major,” he says, meaningfully.  “Give Jean and Rebecca my best.”

“Yes, sir.”

“C’mon,” Ed says.  “Let’s go while the going’s good.  I want a damn window seat; this is gonna take forever.”

Roy bumped them up to first class by paying the difference out of his pocket; ‘forever’ is a concept he doesn’t want to contemplate, but this journey does tend to test the word ‘interminable’.  Ed seeks out some empty seats towards the front of the car, settles his face two inches from the windowpane, and waves as the train pulls out, dropping his hand only when the platform has completely disappeared.

Roy stretches his legs into the aisle, crosses his ankles, uncrosses them again, and doesn’t ask.

Ed slumps back against his seat, sending a cascade of wrinkles down his uniform front, and kicks at the edge of the bench opposite.  “Just say it.”

“It’s none of my business,” Roy says.

Ed snorts.  “You make everything your business.”

“Nevertheless,” Roy says, “that is a personal boundary, and I don’t intend to cross it.”

“You know you want to.”

“Believe it or not, I am capable of prioritizing others’ desires above my own.”

Ed rolls his eyes, scuffs his way up to a civil sitting position again, flexes his fingers, and levelly meets Roy’s gaze.  “Let’s just get it out of the way, okay?”

Roy looks up at their luggage, looks out the window on the opposite side of the train, looks at his well-polished boots, and looks at Ed.

“I expected Walter to be at the station,” he says.  “I’m sure he had a perfectly good reason, however; presumably he had a class, or he’s feeling under the weather, or he suffered a family emergency, so there’s no cause for me to extrapolate and harass you with questions when I am entitled to no answers in the first place.”

Ed’s smile is startlingly cold. “You think of everything, don’t you?”

“Hardly,” Roy says.

Ed folds his arms tight across his chest—more wrinkles—and fixes his gaze on the window.  “Walter and I broke up.  I’m staying with Al.  It is your fucking business.” He sets his jaw.  “We—it was because he wanted me to quit.”

Roy swallows.  “The… military.  He wanted you to quit the military.”

“No,” Ed says; “he wanted me to quit the Lively Ladies’ Romance of the Week Book Club.  Of course the fucking military.”

Roy… hesitates.

Ed huffs out a breath that makes his bangs flutter against his forehead.  “He thinks it’s dangerous.”

“It is,” Roy says.

“I know it fucking is,” Ed says.  “That’s not the point—he thinks it’s dangerous, and I should quit and just… I don’t even know, stay home and write dumbass little articles on alchemy or something.  I’m nobody’s fucking housewife, Roy.”

“I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it,” Roy says, calmly despite the way his head spins on the new axis of ‘Roy’, not ‘General’.  “Not least because you’d castrate me for that.”

“You’re damn fucking right I would,” Ed says.

Roy smiles thinly and tries to remember how it used to feel to be in love with people less obliteratingly real than Ed.  At least in retrospect, it seems that it must have been merciful.  Maybe that’s why dalliances once were so diverting; his partners then were soft and fun and gentle; they were the sweetest source of entertainment; they didn’t inform their superior officer point-blank that they would remove his testicles over a difference of opinion.

Ed rakes a hand through his bangs, shakes them loose, and looks out the window.  “Plus—I mean, I guess it’s not really your fault.”

Roy tries to read Ed’s eyes in the reflection, but the countryside is too colorful, and they’re moving too fast.  “What isn’t my fault?”

Ed swallows.  He has a beautiful throat.  “He… didn’t like the way you looked at me.”

Roy blinks.  “I—beg your pardon?  How do you m—”

Ed half-turns to pin him with a glare.  “Did I stutter, Mustang?  He said you were ‘obviously in love with me, not that he could blame you’, blah, blah, blah, and he said it wasn’t that he didn’t trust me, but he didn’t think it was ‘appropriate’ for me to keep working for you.  Which is fucking bullshit, okay?  It is that he doesn’t fucking trust me, because he should fucking trust me to trust you, which I do—and he should fucking listen when I say ‘I can take care of myself’, because I can.  It’s my fucking life, and I fucking decide who’s a part of it and who’s not.”

Roy tries to think about anything other than the way in which he has apparently been looking at Ed.  “I could transf—”

“Fuck your shit, Mustang!” Ed says, loud enough that a few people further down the car look up sharply.  “Were you even listeni—”

“Yes,” Roy says.  “That’s why that sentence was going to be ‘I could transfer you to a different command if you prefer’ before you interjected.”

“I told you,” Ed says, slouching in his seat again. “I don’t want to.  I’m going to see you all the way to the top, remember?”

“I remember,” Roy says.

Ed scrubs at his eyes with the heels of his hands.  “Fantastic.”

Roy draws a deep breath, releases it slowly, and tries to settle.  It would be untoward to let Ed see the relief—but if he knows already—except he hasn’t made any indication that—

What if it’s all dead by now? What if it’s just too late?

“Okay,” Ed says after a moment, lowering his hands and flattening them on the seat.  “Ask.”

This is without a doubt the worst conversation Roy has ever had on a train, and he once had to share a carriage with Kimblee. “I’m not sure it’s—”

Ed’s eyes darken. “General.”

How is it that Ed has Roy whipped when they’ve not even an item?  This is what it means to belong to someone. This is the closest thing to eternity that Roy will ever touch.

He fortifies himself with another breath, clears his throat, and takes the plunge.  “Do you anticipate that you and Walter will get back together?”

Ed runs his left index finger slowly back and forth across the knuckles of his right hand, looking at them, a line deepening between his eyebrows.  “I dunno.  It’s—it depends a lot on him.  Human beings fucking suck; there’s always so many variables, and all of them are contingent on temporary emotions, so none of it makes any goddamn sense.”

Roy watches Ed more closely than he has ever observed another human being. “Do you love him?”

“Of course I do,” Ed says, and his fingers curl until his fists are clenched, and it feels like Roy’s stomach is being squeezed inside. “I mean, he—he’s been a huge part of my life for months, and he’s great, and he actually accepts all of my weird-ass shit, but—but loving someone isn’t the same as being in love with someone, and even then there are ten thousand gradations and exceptions and discrepancies, and—and people talk about love like it’s the most amazing thing mankind’s ever accomplished, like poetry that even comes close to capturing it is all stunning and soulful, but—it’s just fucking unscientific, and I hate it.”

Roy misses the days when Ed’s histrionics were hilarious instead of devastating. He also misses the days when he wasn’t a miserable, pathetic excuse for a sop. “You’re not in love with him, then?”

Ed unfolds a hand and runs it down his face.

“I don’t have enough data,” he says.

Roy sets his elbow on the armrest, and his hand does not shake. “I wouldn’t advise approaching it like that.”

“No one else has a strategy that works either,” Ed says, looking out the window again. “I asked Lieutenant Havoc, which was—fuck you, don’t laugh; it was science.”

“What did he say?” Roy manages.

Ed pulls a face. “That it ‘just happens’. Like fuck it just happens. And if it does, that’s useless—I’m not going to sit around waiting for anything to just happen.” His scowl slips, and he sighs instead. “I asked him what the difference between love and in love is, too, and you should really fire the dumb bastard, because all he said was ‘you just know’. Is it me or something? Is there something wrong with me? Is everybody else perfectly happy to wander around waiting for shit to fall into place?”

“I’m not,” Roy says.

“I know.” Ed crosses his arms again and shuffles his feet against the floor. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? Because I know you’re determined to change stuff for the better, and I know you can’t do it alone.”

“I hope that’s why you’re here,” Roy says.

“That’s the other thing,” Ed says. He flicks a glance at Roy and then trains his gaze on his own knees. “Walter—he asked—he didn’t even ask; it was phrased as a question, but it was an accusation, and that pissed me off even more—” He makes a frustrated noise and half-shakes his head. “Walter asked if the reason I won’t leave the military for him was because I’m in love with you.”

Roy’s heart doesn’t stop. It doesn’t skip a beat. It doesn’t skitter. It does, however, go from thudding slightly quickly to galloping full-tilt in the space of approximately half a second, which hurts.

“I—” Roy says. “Are you?”

Ed shifts all the way back into his seat, at which point his feet no longer quite reach the floor. He swings his legs, and his heels skim the floorboards, and the distance slips away beneath his feet.

“I don’t have enough data,” he says.

There are a lot of things Roy could say to that. What he says is, “Oh.”

 


 

The fourth year, the cold digs its fingernails under every centimeter of Roy’s skin.

The fourth year, the wind begins to howl like an unconsoled child mere moments after they forge off of the main road in the direction of the fort.

The fourth year, they walk into a blizzard, and the world goes white.

“I knew this would happen,” Ed shouts over the ongoing wail assaulting Roy’s quickly-numbing ears.

“I didn’t take you for a pessimist,” he calls back.

“I’m not,” Ed says.  “It’s just so statistically likely that shit will go wrong for you that it’s about as close as probability gets to a guarantee.”

“I’m flattered that you did the math.”

“I don’t know how you stay awake during those fucking board meetings.”  Ed shuffles closer, staggering through the drifts, and they huddle together slightly in a vague attempt to share body heat.  “Fuck, so—fucking—cold—”

“You noticed,” Roy says.

“Shut it,” Ed says.

“We really need to talk about your insubordination problem,” Roy says.  “It’s ‘shut it, sir’.”

Ed snickers.  “It’s only a problem for you.”

“You know,” Roy says, “the purpose of an adjutant is having someone on hand to share in my problems and help me to solve them.”

“Dealing with your problems is out of my pay grade,” Ed says.

“It wouldn’t be if you didn’t keep refusing promotions.”

“I’m not doin’ it for the paycheck.”

Roy smiles as much as is possible with his face beginning to turn to ice. “Thank you.”

“Oh, shut it,” Ed says, “sir.”

“Such a fast learner,” Roy says.

“I could transmute an igloo,” Ed says.  “We could wait it out.”

Roy stares at him through the shifting veil of white. “Rarely have I heard a less appealing proposition.”

“Let me rephrase that,” Ed says.  “I could transmute a bitchin’-awesome igloo, and we could wait it out.”

“I think I prefer to freeze to death, but I appreciate the generous offer.”

“If freezing to death is what you really want, I’m not gonna stop you.”

What Roy really wants is irrelevant at the moment.  “How terribly kind.”

They trudge a few more steps, flakes swirling, everything a violent pale blur.

“Seriously, though,” Ed says. “Are we—you know we could die out here.”

“The thought occurred to me,” Roy says.

It’s difficult to hear over the wind, but Ed may have just graced him with the title of Most Sarcastic Piece of Shit Bastard on the Fucking Planet. Roy is honored; he will bear it proudly.

First, however, he consults his compass again. They’re still moving due north, albeit at the approximate velocity of a sedated snail; surely it can’t be much further now—

“Ah,” he says.

Ed startles as the vague dark shape ahead solidifies into a modest outpost all in snow-swept timber. “What in the hell—”

“You’re not the only one who considered the statistical likelihood of a catastrophe,” Roy says, trudging with renewed conviction. “I memorized the map of the way stations as a contingency plan. When we don’t send a telegram indicating our arrival at Briggs, Major Hawkeye will call in and browbeat them until they send out a search party. If the storm doesn’t clear up by morning, we can wait for them here; this will be one of the first places they check.”

Roy isn’t sure if snow facilitates mirages like the desert does, but he still doesn’t quite believe their good fortune until his hand makes contact with the wall. He can’t feel it, per se, but it must actually be here; a bit of shuffling and squinting into the whiteout reveals the door. A great deal of snow has to be cleared from around it before he can pry it open even the foot and a half required for Ed to wedge himself through the gap and slip inside.

Roy calls into the dim room after him. “It has the added advantage of being much more stylish than an igloo, don’t you think?”

“I think you’re a dick,” Ed says. “Get in here and shut the damn door. Oh, praise be; there’s a fireplace. Please tell me you brought snow-proof ignition gloves.”

The cabin isn’t much—four not-entirely-windproof walls, three of them with thick-paned windows; a table; a chair; a cot; some cupboards—but it is infinitely better than the raging wilderness outside.

Roy peels off his fur-lined leather gloves—the insides of which have, of course, fallen to the invasion of enterprising snowflakes and are, accordingly, damp and frigid—and reluctantly starts undoing the myriad clothes fastenings that have been attempting to preserve him from the cold.  When he’s bared a sliver of his linen shirt—by which point the skin of his chest beneath it is stinging—he fishes the ignition gloves out of his breast pocket.  They’re not exactly warm, but they’re also not wet, which is the most important thing.

He slips them onto his numb hands and convinces his fingers to snap, focusing intently on intensifying the oxygen concentration in the fireplace; who knows how old the split logs lying there actually are?  They obediently catch, however, which is about all that he could have asked for, and sprightly orange flames lick at the wood.

“Phalanges by the fire, Fullmetal,” Roy says.  “You’re not getting frostbite on my watch.”

Ed looks at him with that peculiar Elric criticality for just a moment too long.  Then he musters a faint smile, tugs off his gloves, toes off his boots, shivers from head to bared feet, and crosses the tiny room to crouch before the fire.  “Yeah, gotta be careful.  I’ve got more of ’em to lose now.”

Roy tucks the ignition gloves back into their pocket, sheds his outermost coat, and settles on the floor next to Ed. His nerves start to prickle at the heat; it feels like coming back to life. “Your brother would have my head if you lost a finger.”

“Never tell him I said this,” Ed says, “but I should’ve brought the earmuffs.”

Roy laughs, which kind of hurts given how cold his cheeks are.

Ed plunks down fully onto the floor and wraps both arms around his right knee, setting his chin on the damp blue fabric for a moment before he glances sidelong at Roy. “So what does General Armstrong want so bad that we dragged our asses into a blizzard for it?”

“Didn’t you read the briefing?” Roy asks.

“Skimmed it,” Ed says. “You had your serious face on, so I knew you’d tell me about anything really important—probably, like, four times, since I’m pretty dumb and all. Plus it’s not like she’d ever put the real reason into writing, especially not in a military communication that all kinds of people could intercept.”

Roy smiles.

“Come to think of it, you should write exactly what you mean for the really secret stuff,” Ed says. “That’s the best way to make sure no one would ever believe it.” He extends his feet towards the fire; both are cocooned in thick wool socks; the right one’s toes wiggle. “This secret reason of hers better be good, or I’m gonna… I dunno. Glare silently at her from a safe distance while her back is turned.”

“She’d know,” Roy says. “And you’ve actually just about put your finger on it. The general wants to know where I stand, and I want to know who she’s backing, but Central isn’t safe—Grumman has ears everywhere, and Hakuro is doing his damnedest to establish a network of his own.”

“Slimy son of a bitch,” Ed says offhandedly. “How much are you going to tell her?”

“Precisely as much as is necessary to get a read on her position,” Roy says.

“’S funny,” Ed says, leaning his head on his knee again. The melted snow makes his hair glisten like warm honey in the firelight. “There’s a lot of exchanges in politics.”

“I’d never considered it in quite those terms,” Roy says.

Ed shrugs and smiles faintly. “Hell of a lot more backstabbing, though. It’s sort of—weird, about this job, the whole military thing, these days. It’s really… collaborative. For us anyway. I guess I don’t have to tell you this, unless your dusty-ass memory’s getting worse, but—alchemy’s not like that, y’know? Even when you’re studying under somebody, or working with someone like how Al and I always do… you’ve only got one objective at a time, and even if you are putting your heads together, there just aren’t as many pieces of the puzzle as with this government-military-whatever gig you’ve got. What you’re doing is completely based on trust.” He looks at Roy, and the firelight darkens his eyes. “How do you do that? How can you trust all of us with your life and your career and every single hope you’ve got, all the time? How can you get up in the morning and not be terrified it’s all gonna go to shit?”

“It took me a long time to assemble this team,” Roy says. “My standards, as you may have noticed, are extremely high. And the first and foremost criterion is a willingness to lay one’s life down not just for me, but for anyone—an absolute commitment to others. Selflessness, I suppose. In the day-to-day, that’s a devotion that manifests in desk work and all of the other little parts of the long game. And after everything that’s happened to us, after all of the possibilities that have come true, you’re all still here—still with me, watching my back. You are all fearlessly dedicated, and with that behind me it’s easy to be brave.”

“Huh,” Ed says.

Roy waits in case any further revelations are forthcoming.

Ed looks down at himself and picks at the soggy braiding on his uniform. “I’m hungry,” he says. “Let me guess—this whole contingency plan thing of yours is the real reason you bought those sandwiches on the way out of the train station.”

“Guilty as charged,” Roy says. He succeeds in catching one of the straps of his pack and dragging it over without getting up. “Hopefully they’ll defrost enough to bite into before too long.”

“I don’t care,” Ed says. “I’d eat a sandwich-flavored popsicle right now.” He reaches around and unfastens his sidearm holster, which appears to be empty until he upends it and pours out a dozen candies wrapped in foil. Before Roy has time to blink, one of them is no longer wrapped, and he’s popping it into his mouth. He proffers another. “Caramel?”

Roy thinks about refusing on principle, but he probably needs the sugar after their sojourn through the snow. “Thank you.” Their fingers brush, cold skin on cold skin; Ed’s eyes flick away; Roy fusses with the foil and then lays the rather chilly sweet on his tongue. He shifts it into his cheek and sucks on it cautiously, hoping it won’t stick to the inside of his mouth. “Has Major Hawkeye authorized this unconventional application of government property?”

“Tacitly,” Ed says. “She must know, because she knows everything, but she hasn’t kicked my ass over it. Guns make me nervous, and I don’t need one. These are more useful.”

Roy swishes the caramel around with his tongue; it clacks softly against the back of his teeth. It and his tastebuds have both warmed enough that the syrup borders on intoxicating. “I’m not in much of a position to argue at the moment. Promise me you won’t tell Second Lieutenant Breda about this, though; he already has food stashed in so many places in the office that I’m worried we’ll get ants.”

“Don’t be,” Ed says. “I raided all of those. He had a pretty good little freezer rigged up for the ice cream. I made it better with alchemy to apologize.”

Roy blinks. “You ate all of that? He must’ve had several meals’ worth—”

“It was when you and I pulled that all-nighter right before the stupid foreign policy meeting,” Ed says, not even watching his hands as they rearrange the uneaten caramels into a series of geometric shapes. “I get hungry when I don’t sleep. Really hungry. And once I started to find all of his caches, it was like a treasure hunt. Why did you think there was barbecue sauce on all of the files I handled that night?”

“I assumed it was intentional,” Roy says. “If you’d left it up to me, I would have made Hakuro’s copy illegible for all the spilt condiments.”

Ed sweeps all of the caramels to the side and raises an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah?”

Roy nods solemnly. “And then I would have said, ‘This should help you ketchup.’”

Ed grins broadly, brightly, spectacularly.

Then he leans forward and fists both hands in the front of Roy’s dampened uniform and pulls their mouths together, and Roy almost chokes on the last of his caramel.

Kissing Ed is—well, nothing like he expected, actually, despite the four years he’s had to imagine every permutation of the possibilities. Kissing Ed is like swallowing sunshine. Kissing Ed is like breathing in a fantasy. Kissing Ed is like being worshiped and attacked at once. It tastes overwhelmingly of caramel, and Ed’s tongue twists and flicks like he’s trying to map out Roy’s mouth inside his head—which, knowing Ed, might well be the case. Ed’s hands twist tighter into his lapels, and Ed exhales hot-humid air against Roy’s cheek; his hair flutters everywhere, silky and tickling at turns. The walls of snow outside have sealed them into an eerily complete sort of silence—but for the crackle of the fire, the rustle of fabric, the gasps of their mingling breaths. This is a world apart from their world, from any world; this is a pocket of perfection; this is a bubble of impossible wonder that’s going to burst any moment into cold air, cold reality—

If Roy’s dreaming, he doesn’t care. He runs his fingertips slowly up along Ed’s jaw on either side, touches his ears, his neck, his hair; he cups his left hand around the base of Ed’s skull and nudges gently at Ed’s chin with his right, tilting Ed’s face further up towards him; Ed draws another breath, and Roy just takes him—licks at his lips, sucks at them, delves deep, runs the tip of his tongue so lightly against the roof of Ed’s mouth that he can feel Ed’s whimper through both of their chests—

But what if that was a protest instead of a surrender? Roy can’t—Ed started it, certainly, but that doesn’t obligate him to follow through; he didn’t know what he was dealing with; how could he? How could he know just how much Roy feels when it’s so much bigger and crueler and fiercer than words or facial expressions or even this?

He draws back and finds himself panting, finds his heart pounding hard against his breastbone, finds the fireplace unchanged despite the heat racing underneath his skin. He draws back and finds Ed blinking, staring, breathing fast. He draws back and lets go, and Ed raises a shaky hand and swipes it across his own wet, red-swollen mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Roy says, and he hates that he can hear his own voice quavering. “I’m—terribly sorry, I—”

Ed’s narrowing eyes cut him off. “What the hell are you sorry for?”

Roy is not proud of the fact that he looks away. “I—lost control. You tend to have that effect on me, and I know that, which is all the more reason that I should have—”

“You’re apologizing,” Ed says slowly, “for the best kiss of my fucking life.”

Helplessly Roy glances up again at that; he has to be sure Ed’s serious. Good God, if that’s the best—well, Walter needs rudimentary lessons in the art of physical affection.

Oh, God, Walter

“This is not acceptable,” Roy says, keeping his voice as low and as soft as he can; he mustn’t give in to the urge to scream aloud instead of speaking. “Given our positions, and given… Ed, I am the worst possible choice for a rebound.”

Ed stares at him.

Roy stares back.

Ed buries his face in both hands and starts to—laugh. Slightly hysterically.

Roy thinks this must be what evisceration feels like. “What?”

“Rebound,” Ed says. “You’re not a fucking rebound, you fucking idiot; you’re just—I’m just—bound. To you. Always have been. Fuck.” He raises his head and watches Roy cagily through his hanging hair. His mouth quirks into a cold, wry smile. “For the record, I’ve got enough data now.”

Roy’s heart is in his ears and his throat at once, which seems reasonable given that Ed long ago split it into enough pieces that each of his other organs could claim one. “You… Edward, don’t let me pressure you into anyth—”

“Fucking ‘rebound’,” Ed says, croaking his way through another laugh and rubbing at his eyes. “You’ve never been anybody’s fucking rebound; what are you talking about? You’ve never been second-best to anybody.”

“I was to you,” Roy says. “You changed the rules. You changed everything. I don’t—I can’t take things like that for granted anymore.”

Ed presses his forehead to his flesh knee, and his hair drapes around his face. “You kept… not… going for it. I mean, I would just offer you—I don’t fuck around, Roy. I don’t play games with shit like feelings. And when you just wouldn’t do anything, I thought—obviously you didn’t want me very much, or you’d go for it. You’ve never been afraid of fucking dating fucking everybody in the fucking city, right? So it had to be me. And Al was mentioning, y’know, how sometimes it’s fun just to flirt for its own sake, and I thought—well, that was what it was. I had just been assuming it meant something to you because I wouldn’t waste energy on crappy-ass human interaction shit if it wasn’t for a purpose, but I guess for some people it’s a self-contained activity instead of a means to an end. So I thought—clearly I wasn’t about to get any cuter, but I was getting older, and… if I wanted something that meant something, I’d just have to find it somewhere else. So I did. And I just—I hate the idea of betraying someone so much that I started to be able to just… turn it off. I stopped looking at you, and after a while I could go a long time without even thinking about you, and it stopped hurting, and I started to forget how it used to feel when you’d catch my eye and give me that fucking smile—and if I just never let you, I wouldn’t have to try to smile back and act like it was fine—”

“No one has ever had as much power over me as you do,” Roy says.

Ed lifts his head just enough to fold his arms over his knee and hide his face in them instead. “This was always gonna fuckin’ happen, wasn’t it?”

“I can’t say I didn’t hope,” Roy says.

Ed shakes his head against his arms. “And then I threw in a bunch of fucking complications.”

“Only because I was a coward,” Roy says.

“Only because you weren’t a fucking lunatic.”

Roy reconfigures the sound in his throat until it emerges as a dry laugh. “Edward,” he says, “I am. I am a madman for you—because of you. I am entirely comprised of contradictions. I hope, and I despair; you wreck me, you heal me; I’m nothing and everything at the same damn time—you are humbling, and you set me alight—”

Ed dives on him, and then they’re on the floor, Ed’s knees on either side of his waist, Ed’s open hands pressed to his chest, Ed’s open mouth on his, Ed’s open heart—

And that’s what it was, isn’t it? Ed couldn’t trust Roy enough to stand up and hold that thrumming heart out to be crushed or cradled; and Roy didn’t realize quite how much he had to lose.

Ed pants, “Finally, finally, God,” and fumbles at Roy’s shirt buttons, but Roy catches his wrists and holds them and tries to meet his eyes. Ed whines in the back of his throat like he’s deprived, and Roy’s willpower—trembles.

“But—” Ed says.

“Not now,” Roy says.

“But if you kiss like that, then you must fuck like—”

“Not yet,” Roy says.

Ed huffs out a frustrated noise and settles his beautiful rear end on Roy’s stomach, which is really quite unfair. He’s searching Roy’s face almost desperately, and the tendons in his wrists twitch. “If you won’t—how am I supposed to be sure—”

Roy releases one of Ed’s arms and reaches up to tuck a wisp of hair behind his ear. “You can’t be sure,” he says. “Not the way you want to. It’s like you said; it’s not scientific. You have to believe me.”

Ed hangs his head and rubs the pad of his thumb at Roy’s collarbone. “I don’t…”

Roy knits the fingers of their free hands together and curls the other around the back of Ed’s neck. “Believe me.”

“It’s so fucking idiosyncratic,” Ed says.

“Believe me.”

“Why don’t they have lobotomies, except for hearts?”

“Believe me.”

Ed swallows hard and looks at him. “You’re a fucking liar.”

“I love you,” Roy says, and with the force of four years behind it, it feels like death and flying and tidal waves aflame.

Ed swallows again, and when he speaks his voice wobbles. “I think I believe you,” he says.

Roy draws him down and kisses him; it’s past articulation, and probably past expression, but maybe—maybe this

Ed touches his forehead to Roy’s when they pause for breath, and their noses brush. His eyes are bright gold and gleaming. He smiles.

“You think those sandwiches are unfrozen yet?” he asks.

 


 

The fourth year, Roy stokes the fire high to last the night and climbs up onto the cot where Ed is hoarding all the blankets.

“Share,” Roy says.

“You’re not the boss of me,” Ed says. He pauses. “Oh. Wait. Shit.”

Roy just thought of a much more enjoyable strategy regardless; he leans in and kisses at every visible inch of Ed’s face. “Please share, my love.”

Ed’s widening grin betrays his petulant tone. “Or what?”

Roy wriggles closer into his warmth. “Or there is a distinct possibility that I shall incur frostbite on certain… appendages… that you might otherwise have come to value greatly.”

“Did you just tell me you’re freezing your dick off?”

“It sounds positively lyrical when you say it like that.”

“Fuck you,” Ed says cheerfully, raising the edge of the blankets. He shivers at the gust of cold air and then squeaks at the incursion of cold Roy.

“That is the hope,” Roy says.

Ed seems torn between nestling closer and attempting to shimmy away from Roy’s frigid skin. “Yeah? When does it stop being a hope and start being me getting some fucking action with Roy Mustang?”

“When we’re ready,” Roy says.

Ed makes a face at him. “By which you mean when you say we’re ready.”

Roy pauses. “Well… yes.”

“Bastard,” Ed says. He settles in against Roy’s chest, and Roy can feel the smile against his skin. “Whatever. I guess I’m not really in a rush.”

“There will be time,” Roy says, stroking a hand through Ed’s hair; it slithers between his fingers. “There will be time for everything.”

“Including you shutting the fuck up and going to sleep?”

“Including that, my love.”

“I give your listening comprehension a zero out of ten.”

Roy laughs, and holds Ed a little tighter, and closes his eyes.